Monday 13 March 2023

A Pot Noodle Lunch with Jack Sparrow at the Summit of Jebel Attuf

Jebel Attuf with Petra below

 The Naboteans, on whose city I am trampling called it Raqmu. We call it Petra. I am to climb 900 steps up to “The Place of High Sacrifice”. The name is a modern fancy. I prefer the Arab name for the bluff of red sandstone towering above me: Jebel Attuf.

In truth, what I can see above me is the original ground level of a sandstone plateau.  The City of Petra is at the bottom of a deep wadi (gorge) cut out of the rock by water and air over aeons.

At the stall at the foot of the first steps, I sit and drink a Turkish coffee (2 Dinars) to fortify myself for the climb. 

The trail I am following is an invention for tourists. Some of the 900 steps are old, some are modern. I start on worn, shallow sandstone steps. They are extraordinary. Many feet have worn the stone into shallow depressions that feather the millimetre thick geological layers into rings of red, ochre, brown, yellow and black.  I am walking on a petrified Arabian carpet.

At the first turn, an elderly Bedouin woman plays a few notes on a tin whistle.  She stops, “I walk here every day. My husband died.” I part with a Dinar; it is expected.  One of my companions is having trouble with the steps.  The old woman takes my companion’s arm and uses her hidden strength to help her up the next flight.  There is an Arab saying, “Give without remembering, take without forgetting.” 

I am halfway up. I take it steadily.  I start to think about the 900 steps down on the other side. I feel a bit daunted.  Just at that moment, I have to move aside to let a man past who is sprinting up the steps. He has plenty of breath to say, “Merci”.  A Frenchman. Of course he’s a Frenchman. I plod on.

The steps vary in height and depth; it is hard going. Slowly I rise from the valley floor towards the sky and the top level of the plateau.  Near the top is a small Crusader lookout post.  It is built with solid, square cut blocks of sandstone that do not match the surrounding rock.  Did they carry the castle up here block by block?

Finally, I reach the summit.  A young Bedouin man is selling souvenirs and coffee in a black and red tent made of camelhair rugs. The souvenirs are the same as they are in almost every stall in Petra. The Bedouin inhabitants were persuaded to move out of their cave dwellings into a village built for them outside the site.  In return, they have a monopoly on selling and working in what is now a UNESCO protected site.  I order a Turkish coffee. It is only one and a half Dinars despite the fact that everything including the water has to be lugged up to the top.

I ask if I can join him as he sits under the sky on top of a red and ochre plateau of rock that might be on Mars.  He motions me to sit so I sip my coffee as he enjoys his lunch of pot noodles.

Photo credit Jonathan Baltesz, thank you.

Since time immemorial, Bedouin men have applied deep black kohl round their eyes.  It is a protection against the desert sun but they are not unaware that it gives them a dashing and exotic air. They also enjoy thick, lustrous jet-black hair that is naturally wavy.  In a sort of competitive evolution, many of the younger Bedouin now dress to look like Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp’s character in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  The kohl is now drawn into fantastic shapes. Whether the look works some magic on susceptible backpackers from Akron, Ohio, I did not dare ask.

We have a go at conversation.  I have only a few words of Arabic and my accent is so bad that he does not recognise that I am speaking his language.  He tells me he sleeps up here at the top.  He has seven brothers and sisters and that he has a girlfriend in the village.  I realise that these are a few stock phrases of English that he has learnt. We have a companionable ten minutes but no real conversation.  I wish him “Marsalamah” (this he recognises) and I set off down the other side of the bluff.

There are more of the modern steps on the way down. Some are cut into the side of the cliff and turn corners with no railings inside or on the outside of the turn.  I am nervous of heights. Older steps have been worn by water and feet into a sort of slippery cascade.  The walk down is more exciting than the climb up.

The geological layers are now beyond my understanding.  What possible geological process has laid down an inches thick layer of bright yellow stone with a black layer and then another yellow layer above it?  It looks like a Liquorice Allsort, inserted into the prevailing ochre.  Nabotean caves reveal more layers like tapestries.  There are horizontal and vertical layers within feet of each other.  I need to go home, take a degree in Geology and return. I reach the lowest level and find a cool, dark man-made cave.  Inside, two-Dinar coffee is on offer.

I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne Tours

Photo Adrienne Higham

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